Could robots help cure the loneliness epidemic among older Australians?
Loneliness is a big issue. All over the world, it’s been proven that we’re actually getting lonelier. In Russia, Japan, the USA, here in Australia and in so many other countries, we have the numbers now to show the epidemic is real. And it’s the elderly who are the most affected by it.
While I believe our modern high-tech world has, to some extent, exacerbated loneliness – with the rise of automation and social media and other evolving technologies – I also believe that new technological advances can and should be applied to help overcome the issue of loneliness and social isolation.
New technological advances can and should be applied to help overcome the issue of loneliness and social isolation.
So what if a robot could help?
The way I see it, one day every elderly person in Australia could have a robot residing in their home to make it easier to talk to family and friends, and engage with support workers and service providers in a really positive, interactive way.
Just imagine it. Being able to pick up the phone and activate the robot, or engaging using a robot as a device. Imagine it displaying lip movements for those hard of hearing, or showing all the little things we do as humans as far as body language goes.
And now imagine that robot being able to move around the house and be with that person as they walk through their garden or make a cup of tea – while simultaneously offering a visual to the person on the other end of the line so they can make an inspection of the residence, assess potential trip hazards and generally check in on a person’s environment and wellbeing.
It is robots like this, with real human-like qualities, that can play an important role in a new era of aged care that is emerging.
The idea is not to replace humans. The idea is to supplement services – to add an extra layer of support and enhance communications and capabilities. I believe that the workforce of the future, and older people in the future, will revolve around a combination of the human touch and human care, but also robotics to help with those day-to-day activities.
Ultimately, helping to keep seniors independent in their own home for longer.
And with an ageing population and a shortage of carers, this is something we need to consider. The sooner we work together with these types of technologies, the better.
Machines replicating humans isn’t completely new to the home care sector though. The idea for this particular robot came out of a research project we did with the European Union, looking at a robot that was able to dispense medicines and detect falls that’s currently being used in the US.
In Japan, they use robots to help bathe people – though I don’t think that would be culturally accepted somewhere like Australia.
And while it’s our hope to develop robots with other capabilities further down the track – maybe cleaning the house, picking things up, assisting an older person after a fall, and perhaps even engaging in a conversation – right now, our focus is on targeting loneliness and social isolation, as they are the greatest problems to solve.
But it’s about taking baby steps.
And the truth is it starts with the normalisation process – because a lot of people think “robot” and have preconceived ideas of what this means. I’ve heard people say “I’m not letting a robot tell me what to do” or talk about a robot “taking over”. But it’s not about that.
We’re a very social species and as humans we need to keep on socialising right throughout our lives for a healthy mind and body. And it’s in those later years when friends and partners may no longer be around, and being physically able to go out and engage with the community, that loneliness becomes a real problem. So that’s what we’re focusing on.
Because we know that loneliness takes more than just an emotional toll, but a physical one too. Research shows that social isolation can lead to high blood pressure, thoughts of self harm and all sorts of other medical problems.
So we‘ve been working with people aged 65 to 85, who we call the “young old”, and introducing these sorts of technologies to make communication a richer experience early on – before loneliness becomes a real problem. Getting them used to this device allows them to have richer communications with the people around them.
Early results have shown that the robots could increase feelings of connectedness and reduced loneliness in older people, while also addressing safety concerns. It’s still early days, but this idea of robots in our everyday home environment is likely to become the new normal, eventually.
And one day, you’ll even be able to customise your robot.
I’d love for this to be common in homes across Australia by 2030. I’ll be in my mid-70s by then myself. I sure wouldn’t mind my son and daughter having remote access via the robot and talking and walking with me as I show them my garden and all the items I’ve made in my workshop.